The Vice Presidency is an elegant office whose occupant must find it his principal business to try to discover what is the use of there being such an office at all.
—Indianapolis Journal, March 7, 1871
As amiable a man who ever served in Congress, good-natured, kindly, cordial, and always diplomatic, Indiana's Schuyler Colfax won the nickname "Smiler" Colfax. Through two of the most tumultuous decades in American public life, Colfax glided smoothly from the Whig to Know-Nothing to Republican parties, mingling easily with both conservatives and radicals. He rose to become Speaker of the House and vice president and seemed poised to achieve his goal of the presidency. Along the way, there were those who doubted the sincerity behind the smile and suspected that for all his political dexterity, Colfax stood for nothing save his own advancement. Those close to President Abraham Lincoln later revealed that he considered Speaker Colfax an untrustworthy intriguer, and President Ulysses S. Grant seemed relieved when the Republican convention dumped Vice President Colfax from the ticket in 1872. Even the press, which counted the Indiana editor as a colleague and pumped him up to national prominence, eventually turned on Colfax and shredded his once admirable reputation until he disappeared into the forgotten recesses of American history.
Schuyler Colfax was born into a family of distinguished heritage but depleted circumstances. His grandfather, who had fought in the American Revolution and served closely with George Washington, married Hester Schuyler, a cousin of General Philip Schuyler, and named one of his sons for Washington and another for Schuyler. Schuyler Colfax, Sr., became a teller in a bank on New York City's Wall Street. In 1820 he married Hannah Stryker, the daughter of a widowed boardinghouse keeper. He died of tuberculosis two years later, as his wife was expecting her first child. Four months after his father's death, Schuyler, Jr. was born in New York City on March 23, 1823.
As a boy, Colfax attended public schools until he was ten, when he was obliged to work as a clerk in a retail store to help support himself, his mother, and his grandmother. Three years later, his mother married George W. Matthews, and the family moved to New Carlisle, Indiana. Young Colfax worked in his stepfather's store, which served also as the village post office. Townspeople later recalled that Colfax would sit on barrels reading newspapers as they arrived by post. He borrowed whatever books he could get to provide himself with an education. In 1841, the family moved to South Bend, where Matthews was elected as the Whig candidate for county auditor and hired Schuyler as his deputy. Enjoying politics, the boy became active in a "moot legislature," where he gained his first experience in debate and parliamentary procedure.
Politics and the Press
At sixteen, Colfax wrote to Horace Greeley, editor of the influential Whig newspaper, the New-York Tribune, offering to send occasional articles. Always open to new talent, Greeley agreed and published the boy's writings on Indiana politics, beginning a correspondence and friendship that lasted for the rest of their lives. Colfax also reported on the Indiana legislature for the Indiana State Journal, and when he was nineteen local Whigs engaged him to edit the South Bend Free Press. The young editor described himself as an "uncompromising Whig." He idolized Henry Clay and embraced all of the Whig reforms, taking a pledge of abstinence from alcoholic spirits (but not from the cigars he loved). In 1844 he married a childhood sweetheart, Evelyn Clark, and by the next year was able to purchase the Free Press, renaming it the St. Joseph Valley Register. The writer Harriet Beecher Stowe later proclaimed it "a morally pure paper."
Advancing from the editorial page into politics, Colfax served as a delegate to the Whig convention of 1848 and to the convention that drafted a new constitution for Indiana in 1849. He led the opposition to a provision in the constitution that barred African Americans from settling in Indiana or those already in the state from purchasing land. Despite his efforts, this racial barrier stood until ruled unconstitutional as a consequence of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1865. In 1851, the Whigs chose Colfax to run for Congress. At that time, Indiana was a Democratic state and Colfax narrowly lost to the incumbent Democrat. He declined to run again in 1852. Dismayed over the disintegration of the Whig party and offended by Senator Stephen A. Douglas' Kansas-Nebraska Act that repealed the Missouri Compromise, Colfax again ran for Congress in 1854 as an Anti-Nebraska candidate. His friend and fellow editor Horace Greeley, who had served a brief term in 1849, encouraged him: "I thought it would be a nuisance and a sacrifice for me to go to Congress," he advised Colfax, "but I was mistaken; it did me lasting good. I never was brought so palpably and tryingly into collision with the embodied scroundrelism of the nation as while in Congress."
Building a New Party
Antislavery Whigs like Colfax sought to build a new party that combined the antislavery elements among the Whigs, Democrats, and Free Soilers, a coalition that eventually emerged as the Republican party. For a brief time, however, it seemed likely that a nativist organization, the Know-Nothings, might become the new majority party. The first Know-Nothing lodge in Indiana opened in early 1854 and by election time the party had grown, in the words of one Methodist minister, "as thick as the Locusts in Egypt." The Know-Nothings opposed slavery and alcohol but turned their greatest passions against Catholics and immigrants. Although Colfax shared these nativist prejudices (arguing that "Protestant foreigners, who are thoroughly Americanized" should be admitted into the party), he made it clear that he would remain only if the Know-Nothings kept a firm antislavery plank in their platform. When the new congressman arrived in the House of Representatives in 1855, it was unclear which members belonged to what party. The New-York Tribune Almanac estimated that there were 118 Anti-Nebraska representatives, a number that included Republicans, anti-Nebraska Democrats, and antislavery Know-Nothings, comprising a slight majority of the House. By the following year, the Know-Nothings had already peaked and declined, and Colfax announced that he would run for reelection as a Republican.
The House of Representatives proved an ideal arena for Colfax's talents. Short and stocky, fair-haired, with a ready smile, he got along well with his colleagues in private but never hesitated to do battle with the opposition on the House floor. When Republicans held the majority, he served energetically as chairman of the Committee on Post Offices and Post Roads, handling the kind of patronage that built political organizations. Never having been a lawyer, he could put complex issues of the day into layman's terms. In 1856, his speech attacking laws passed by the proslavery legislature in Kansas became the most widely requested Republican campaign document. His speech raised warnings that it was a short step between enslaving blacks and suppressing the civil liberties of whites. Watching Colfax battle southern representatives over the slavery issue, James Dabney McCabe recorded that "Mr. Colfax took an active part in the debate, giving and receiving hard blows with all the skill of an old gladiator."
Colfax traveled widely, spoke frequently, and helped fuse the various Republican and antislavery groups into a unified party for the 1860 election. When the southern Democrats seceded and put House Republicans in the majority, he considered running for Speaker, but after testing the waters declined to be a candidate. He resumed his chairmanship of the Post Office Committee. Colfax took a moderate position on emancipation and other issues of the day, maintaining close ties with both wings of his party. He enjoyed direct access to President Lincoln and often served as a conduit of information and opinion from Horace Greeley and other Republican editors. He worked tirelessly on behalf of the Union, recruiting regiments and raising public spirits. Yet antiwar sentiments ran strong in Indiana and many other northern states, and in 1862 Colfax faced a tough campaign for reelection against David A. Turpie. Winning a narrow victory further elevated Colfax within the party at a time when many other Republicans, including House Speaker Galusha Grow, were defeated. When the Thirty-eighth Congress convened in December 1863, House Republicans—with their numbers considerably thinned—elected Schuyler Colfax Speaker, despite President Lincoln's preference for a Speaker less tied to the Radical faction of his party.
Speaker of the House
As Speaker of the House, Schuyler Colfax presided, in the words of the journalist Ben: Perley Poore, "in rather a slap-dash-knock-'em-down-auctioneer style, greatly in variance with the decorous dignity of his predecessors." He had studied and mastered the rules of the House, and both sides considered his rulings fair. Credited as being the most popular Speaker since Henry Clay, Colfax aspired to be as powerful as Clay. Certainly, he shared Clay's sense of the dramatic, once stepping down from the presiding officer's chair to urge the House to expel an Ohio Democrat who had advocated recognizing the independence of the Confederacy. Another time the Speaker broke precedent by requesting that his vote be recorded in favor of the Thirteenth Amendment. Yet with the exception of the power to appoint members to committees, the Speaker of the House was still mostly a figurehead. Observers declared the real power in the House to be the tough-minded Pennsylvanian Thaddeus Stevens, chairman of the Appropriations Committee and de facto Republican floor leader.
Washington newspaper correspondents celebrated the election of one of their own as Speaker and threw a dinner in his honor. "We journalists and men of the newspaper press do love you, and claim you as bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh," said correspondent Sam Wilkeson. "Fill your glasses, all, in an invocation to the gods for long life, greater success, and ever-increasing happiness to our editorial brother in the Speaker's Chair." In reply Colfax thanked the press for sustaining him through all his elections. Trained in journalism, Speaker Colfax applied the lessons of his craft to his political career, making himself available for interviews, planting stories, sending flattering notes to editors, suggesting editorials, and spreading patronage. A widower (his wife died in 1863) with no children, Colfax was free to socialize nightly with his friends on Washington's "Newspaper Row." He hoped to parlay his popularity with the press into a national following that would make him the first journalist to occupy the White House.
The press lavished more attention on Speaker Colfax than they had on Galusha Grow or any of his immediate predecessors. They praised the regular Friday night receptions that the Speaker and his mother held and commended him for the "courtesy, dignity, and equitability which he exhibited in the discharge of the important duties of the chair." It was harder for the press to detect whether Speaker Colfax actually had any influence on specific legislation. He gave the radical firebrands wide latitude, while speaking with moderation himself. At one point, when Radical Republicans were prepared to introduce a resolution in the party conference that defended the Republican record and called for the use of black soldiers in the Union army, Colfax outflanked them with a motion that substituted patriotic flag waving for partisanship, calling instead for all loyal men to stand by the Union. His action was taken as an effort to give the Republican party a less vindictive image that would build a broader base for congressional elections.
On April 14, 1865, Colfax called at the White House to talk over Reconstruction and other matters with President Lincoln before Colfax left on a long tour of the western states and territories. With the war won, Lincoln was in an ebullient mood and held a long and pleasant conversation with the Speaker (whom Lincoln privately regarded as "a little intriguer—plausible, aspiring beyond his capacity, and not trustworthy"). The president invited the Speaker to join his party at Ford's Theater that night, but Colfax declined. Later that evening, he was awakened with news that the president had been shot and rushed to spend the night in the room where Lincoln died.
Reconstructing the South
During the summer of 1865, Colfax toured the mining regions between the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific. Newspaper correspondent Albert Richardson, who accompanied him, recorded that the trip proved to be "one continuous ovation" for Colfax, with brass bands, banquets, and public receptions, during which the Speaker made seventy speeches. He returned to a capital still uncertain over how the new President Andrew Johnson would handle the reconstruction of the southern states. Radicals in Congress trusted that Johnson would use federal troops to support tough policies toward the former Confederacy, but there were signs that Johnson favored a speedier, more lenient readmission of the states. That November, at a serenade to mark his return to Washington, Speaker Colfax made some remarks that seemed impromptu but that may have been prearranged. He endorsed Johnson's attempts to begin Reconstruction prior to congressional legislation and set as a minimum for the return of the southern states a guarantee that freedmen would be treated equally under the law. He made no mention of the radical demand that the freedmen also have the right to vote. The speech won widespread praise in the North, where it was perceived as the firm foundation of Republican policy on which both the president and Congress could stand.
Colfax's efforts at party harmony and a moderate course of Reconstruction were short lived. Johnson resented Colfax's preempting his own statement of policy on the subject. The president's plans to reconstruct the South showed little regard for the rights of the freedmen, and he vetoed such relatively moderate congressional efforts as the Freedmen's Bureau bill. His action drove moderate and radical Republicans into an alliance that brought about congressional Reconstruction of the South. Finally, Johnson's dismissal of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton in violation of the Tenure of Office Act convinced even moderates like Colfax that the president must be impeached. Through all of these dramatic events, Colfax's most astonishing success was his ability to retain the support of all sides in his party and to hold House Republicans together. The party defections that saved Johnson took place in the Senate rather than the House.
From Speaker to Vice President
As the 1868 presidential election approached, Speaker Colfax believed the nomination of Ulysses S. Grant to be "resistless." As for himself, he declined to run either for the Senate or for governor of Indiana, leaving the door open for the vice-presidential nomination. Colfax insisted that presiding over the House as Speaker was "the more important office" than presiding over the Senate as vice president. But the vice-presidency was the more direct avenue to the presidency. At the convention, his chief rivals for the second spot were Senate President pro tempore Ben Wade and Massachusetts Senator Henry Wilson. Colfax polled fourth on the first ballot and gained steadily with each subsequent ballot. The temperance forces were delighted that Colfax's headquarters distributed no liquor, in contrast to Senator Wade, who handed out spirits freely among the delegates. Among Republicans there was a collective sense that the abstinent Colfax would balance a ticket with Grant, who had been known to drink heavily.
Colfax stayed in Washington while the Republican convention met in Chicago. His good friend, William Orton, head of the Western Union Telegraph Company, arranged for Colfax to receive dispatches from the convention every ten minutes. On May 21 Colfax was in the Speaker's Lobby when he received Orton's telegram announcing his nomination. Cheers broke out, and the room quickly filled with congressmen wishing to offer congratulations. As he left the lobby, Colfax was greeted by House staff members, who "gathered around him in the most affectionate manner and tendered him their regards." Citizens hailed him as he walked across the Capitol grounds. On the Senate side, Bluff Ben Wade received the news that he had been beaten and said, "Well, I guess it will be all right; he deserves it, and he will be a good presiding officer." The news was received with seemingly universal applause. "His friends love him devotedly," wrote one admirer, "and his political adversaries . . . respect him thoroughly."
For years, Colfax had addressed Sunday schools and temperance revival meetings, quoting from the Bible and urging his listeners to a life of virtue. He won support from the religious magazines as a "Christian Statesman." One campaign biography praised his "spotless integrity" and declared, "So pure is his personal character, that the venom of political enmity has never attempted to fix a stain upon it." Democrats, however, lambasted Colfax as a bigot for the anti-Catholicism of his Know-Nothing past. Republicans dismissed these charges as mudslinging and organized Irish and German Grant and Colfax Clubs to court the Catholic and foreign-born vote. (Although it was not known at the time, U.S. Grant had also once joined the Know-Nothings and apparently shared their anti-Catholic prejudices.)
In November 1868, Grant and Colfax were narrowly elected over the Democratic ticket headed by New York Governor Horatio Seymour. Days after the election, the vice president-elect married Ellen Wade, niece of the Ohio senator he had defeated for the vice-presidential nomination. The groom was forty-five and the bride "about thirty," an attractive and charming woman. By April 1870 their son Schuyler III was born. This domestic bliss would in fact contribute to Colfax's political undoing. As a married man, he found less time to socialize with his old friends in the press, and invitations to the lavish receptions at his new home became harder for reporters to receive, causing considerable resentment among his old friends on Newspaper Row, who thought he was putting on airs. Not a wealthy man, the new vice president could never say no to a gift. He grew indiscreet in his acceptance of everything from sterling silver to free railroad passes. In 1868 Colfax also accepted some railroad stocks from his friend Representative Oakes Ames, who promised handsome dividends. Neither suspected the political price that the stock would ultimately exact.
Plans to Retire
The first Speaker of the House ever elected vice president (a previous former Speaker, James K. Polk, had won the presidency in 1844), Colfax moved easily to the Senate chamber as a man long familiar with the ways of Capitol Hill. The Senate proved an easier body to preside over, leaving him with time on his hands to travel, lecture, and write for the press. The Indianapolis Journal observed that "the Vice Presidency is an elegant office whose occupant must find it his principal business to try to discover what is the use of there being such an office at all." Colfax consulted periodically with President Grant, but, as one Democratic paper sneered, the vice president carried "more wind than weight." His distance from the president proved not to be a disadvantage when various scandals began to tarnish Grant and his administration. Speculation soon arose that Colfax would replace Grant in the next election. There was much surprise, therefore, when in September 1870, at age forty-seven, Colfax announced that he intended to retire at the end of his term. "I will then have had eighteen years of continuous service at Washington, mostly on a stormy sea—long enough for any one; and my ambition is all gratified and satisfied." This was an old tactic for Colfax, who periodically before had announced his retirement and then changed his mind. Some believed he intended the announcement to further separate himself from the Grant administration and open the way for the presidential nomination in 1872. But the national press and Senator Henry Wilson took the announcement at face value, and before long the movement to replace him went further than Colfax had anticipated.
Colfax predictably changed his mind early in 1872 and acceded to the wishes of his friends that he stand for reelection on "the old ticket." President Grant may have questioned Colfax's intentions. In 1871 the president had sent his vice president an extraordinary letter, informing him that Secretary of State Hamilton Fish wished to retire and asking him "in plain English" to give up the vice-presidency for the State Department. Grant appeared to be removing Colfax as a potential rival. "In all my heart I hope you will say yes," he wrote, "though I confess the sacrifice you will be making." Colfax declined, and a year later when Senator Wilson challenged Colfax for renomination, the president chose to remain neutral in the contest.
For a man who had assiduously courted the press for so long, Colfax found himself abandoned by the Washington correspondents, who overwhelmingly supported Henry Wilson. Colfax's slide in the opinion of the Washington press corps had its roots in a dinner at the beginning of his term as vice president, when he had lectured them on the need to exercise their responsibilities prudently, since in their hands lay the making and unmaking of great men. The reporters had noted archly that Colfax, like other politicians, had never complained about the "making" of their reputations, just the "unmaking." Mary Clemmer Ames, a popular newspaper writer in Washington, attributed Colfax's downfall to envy within the press corps. He did not invite them to his dinners and receptions, so they decided to "write him down." The naturally cynical and skeptical reporters, apparently considering the vice president's sanctimoniousness contradictory to his newfound riches and opulent lifestyle, sought to take him down a few pegs. One correspondent likened Colfax to "a penny dip burning high on the altar among the legitimate tapers of State." By contrast, the reporters liked Senator Wilson, who leaked so freely that they dubbed him "the official reporter of the [secret] executive sessions of the Senate." Colfax bitterly charged that Wilson had invited newspapermen in "nearly every evening, asking them to telegraph that he was gaining steadily, that I did not care for it." When he lost the nomination, the vice president magnanimously shook Senator Wilson's hand, but one observer noticed that his famous smile had become "a whitened skeleton of its former self." At least Colfax's defeat spared him having to run against his old mentor, Horace Greeley, presidential candidate that year on a fusion ticket of Democrats and Liberal Republicans.
The Crédit Mobilier Scandal
As a man still in his forties, Colfax might well have continued his political career after the vice-presidency, except for his connection to the worst scandal in nineteenth-century U.S. political history. In September 1872, as the presidential campaign was getting underway, the New York Sun broke the four-year-old story about the Crédit Mobilier, a finance company created to underwrite construction of the transcontinental Union Pacific Railroad. Since the railroad depended on federal subsidies, the company had recruited Massachusetts Representative Oakes Ames to distribute stock among the key members of Congress who could help them the most. Some members had paid for the stock at a low value, others had put no money down at all but simply let the generous dividends pay for the stock. On Oakes Ames' list were the names of both Schuyler Colfax and Henry Wilson, along with such other Washington luminaries as Representatives James Garfield and James G. Blaine. In South Bend, Indiana, Vice President Colfax made a public statement that completely dissociated himself from Crédit Mobilier, assuring his listeners that he never owned a dollar of stock that he had not paid for.
On January 7, 1873, the House committee investigating the Crédit Mobilier scandal called the vice president to testify. Ames claimed that, since Colfax had lacked the money to buy the stock, the stock had been paid for by its own inflated dividends. Ames' notes indicated that Colfax had received an additional $1,200 in dividends. On the stand, Colfax swore flatly that he had never received a dividend check from Ames, but his testimony was contradicted by evidence from the files of the House sergeant at arms. Without missing a beat, Colfax insisted that Ames himself must have signed and cashed the check. Then the committee produced evidence from Colfax's Washington bank that two days after the payment had been made, he had deposited $1,200 in cash—and the deposit slip was in Colfax's own handwriting. Taking two weeks to explain, Colfax claimed that he had received $200 from his stepfather (who worked as a clerk in the House of Representatives) and another $1,000 from George Nesbitt, a campaign contributor by then deceased. This story seemed so patently self-serving and far-fetched that even his strongest supporters dismissed it. Making matters worse, the committee disclosed evidence suggesting that Nesbitt, who manufactured stationery, had bribed Colfax as chairman of the House Post Office Committee in order to receive government contracts for envelopes. A resolution to impeach Colfax failed to pass by a mostly party-line vote, in part because just a few weeks remained in his term. The pious statesman had been exposed, and the public was unforgiving. Colfax left the vice-presidency in disgrace, becoming a symbol of the sordidness of Gilded Age politics. Later in 1873, when the failure of the transcontinental railroads to make their bond payments triggered a disastrous financial collapse on Wall Street, plunging the nation into a depression that lasted for the rest of the decade, one ruined investor muttered that it was "all Schuyler Colfax's fault, damn him."
Others implicated in Crédit Mobilier survived politically. Henry Wilson was elected vice president. James Garfield became president in 1880, and James G. Blaine won the Republican presidential nomination, but not the election, in 1884. Colfax, however, returned to private life in South Bend, Indiana. Briefly, there was talk that his friend William Orton would put up the funds to enable him to purchase the prestigious New-York Tribune after Horace Greeley's death in 1872, but the deal fell through. Then a new opportunity developed. Called upon to deliver a short speech at the unveiling of a statue of Abraham Lincoln in Springfield, Illinois, Colfax discovered that the public had an insatiable appetite for information about their martyred president. He commenced a lucrative career as a public lecturer (up to $2,500 per speech) on his wartime relationship with Lincoln. From time to time, Colfax's name surfaced as a candidate for the House or the Senate, or for the presidential nomination, but he declined to become a candidate. "You can't imagine the repugnance with which I now view the service of the many headed public," he wrote, "with all its toils, its innumerable exactions of all kinds, the never ending work and worry, the explanations about everything which the public think they have a right to, the lack of independence as to your goings and comings, the misunderstandings, the envyings, backbitings, etc., etc., etc." On January 13, 1885, on his way to a speaking engagement in Iowa, Colfax was stricken by a heart attack and died while waiting at a railroad station in Mankato, Minnesota, where the temperature dipped to thirty below zero. Unrecognized by those around him, the former Speaker and vice president was identified only by papers in his pocket.
Doggerel from a critical newspaper perhaps served as the epitaph for Schuyler Colfax's rise to national prominence and precipitous fall from grace:
A beautiful smiler came in our midst,
Too lively and fair to remain;
They stretched him on racks till the soul of Colfax
Flapped up into Heaven again,
May the fate of poor Schuyler warn men of a smiler,
Who dividends gets on the brain!
Print-friendly Version with Footnotes